By Kyle Koso
No seniors? No imported fifth- or sixth-year players bouncing around the nation, looking for that last, best roster gig? No transfers from the portal, even?
The look of the Wichita State volleyball roster is downright bizarre in 2022, as homegrown and stable as you can find in Division I, a world that was turned upside down during the COIVID pandemic. It’s been an impossible-to-imagine churn of athletes moving from place to place since 2020, but the Shockers are a true outlier, essentially unchanged and very young, to boot.
Head coach Chris Lamb gets it – other programs are just doing what the rules allow, and Wichita State is just fine with its own road map. The Shockers (18-12) won seven of their last eight matches this season and accepted a bid to the 2022 NIVC, where they will host a four-team pod starting Sunday and face Grand Canyon (17-10). WSU’s RPI number of 60 put it just outside the conversation for an NCAA tournament bid, but the year has already been a source of pride by thriving in the arduous American Athletic Conference dominated by NCAA-tourney qualifiers Houston and Central Florida.
Ideally, Wichita State will be ready to pounce going forward, unified in their approach and fortified by doing it all together from the start.
“When COVID hit, we were as young as you could be. That was a disadvantage for us, the older teams had kids who got that fifth year, or retooled with other grads, and I’m sitting here wondering do we get any credit for holding things together?,” said Lamb, in his 23rd season running the show at WSU. “Everybody has the one-off mercenaries who come in and make the team better; teams we played had four or five new starters … I’m not running anybody off, the team is happy and together. We did it the old-fashioned way.
“The league got way older, a lot of seniors graduated out of our league last year, and I’m thinking the conference is younger, and it absolutely was not. Of course, it’s not like anyone really cares, they just want to have a good team and beat you. I’m old, been doing this forever, and I guess I know we held something together through all the craziness. The league got older and better, and we managed to do pretty well. Without a handful of injuries all at the same time, we might have stolen a couple in the middle there.”
Lamb was also determined to stick with his time-honored plan of playing a difficult pre-conference schedule. A five-set win over Iowa State was a clear highlight, but good things came out of tough assignments against the likes of Creighton, Omaha, Northern Colorado, UNLV, Kansas and Wright State (five of those qualified for the NCAA tournament).
“I’d rather watch tape of my team with good teams on the other sides. I’m a math guy, I know how RPI works, and you got to go play teams. If you’re not good, you won’t make the tournament anyway,” Lamb said. “The real crime is when you’re good but the schedule didn’t give you a chance. I don’t buy that you have to win to build confidence – who made that rule? Why can’t you have great performances against great teams and still learn how to feel good about that?”
The Shockers have been reliably good on defense in 2022, with better numbers in blocks and digs than the opposition and holding teams below a .200 hitting percentage. Offensively, there are great swings coming regularly from junior Brylee Kelly (team-high 384 kills), sophomore Natalie Foster (349) and junior Sophia Rohling (263), with the whole mission piloted with great skill from junior setter Kayce Litzau.
“Kayce was all-conference last year and she was at least as good this year – they only had only two setters for all-conference, which really bummed me out,” Lamb said. “For us, when it’s clicking, we get three girls on the scoreboard. Some teams can do more, but we work best when Brylee is scoring, Sophia is scoring, Natalie is scoring, and you hope to get a little more from either of the two Morgans (sophomores Weber and Stout) – you feel like you’ve got a chance to do something.”
Kelly and Foster were both first-team all-conference honorees this season.
LAST WORD – Lamb on the NIVC: “We don’t have a postseason tournament in the conference – this is wonderful for so many. I told the team I’d never take anything from qualifying for the NCAA tournament, but if we are fortunate to make a run in this, from a development standpoint I’d rather do that than be a one-and-done in the NCAA’s. You might not feel that today, but you’d feel it down the road, to get some postseason run and experience. You can get a lot from that.”